I came of age as a feminist under the banner “The Personal Is Political.” Launched in 1970 to counter a culture-wide assumption that our dissatisfactions were trivial, the slogan raised public consciousness of private experiences mainly suffered by women: for instance, rape, domestic violence, sexual harassment, job discrimination, unequal pay and the paucity of childcare.
The slogan emphasizes that politics is not solely about election campaigns, red state/blue state conflict or international affairs, but rather about power dynamics, which also play out in workplace hierarchies and in the minutiae of personal relationships. The slogan also crystallized the previously unacknowledged fact that women’s seemingly “personal” issues affect American families as profoundly as, say, air pollution, drug addiction, monetary policy or the shortage of affordable housing.
A half century ago, the idea that the personal is political illuminated my generation’s path into the women’s liberation movement and the struggle for gender justice. Fueled by pent-up frustration and rage, women’s newfound solidarity and grassroots activism gave rise to massive political engagement. We found the courage to articulate our discontents, wants and needs and to make demands on our political leaders. I, for example, was radicalized by a 1970 paper entitled “The Politics of Housework,” in which feminist theorist Pat Mainardi connected family power relations with the division of labor in the average household. Turns out that chores like cooking, cleaning, shopping, taking out the garbage, doing laundry or washing the car are as reflective of patriarchal politics as who controls access to wealth, work or, for that matter, abortion.
As women coalesced around each species of injustice, things changed. Policy initiatives morphed into laws addressing workplace inequities, sexual violence and homemakers’ rights. Women’s projects got foundation funding. Gender was added to class and race as a category in economic data and medical research. People evolved. Educational curricula adapted. Women ran for office. Marriages either adjusted or failed. (All this is explored in my 1983 book, Family Politics.)
I’m not saying America became a feminist nirvana, but those transformations would never have happened had millions of us not been brave enough to politicize the truth of our personal experience.
It’s worth revisiting this history now because “the personal is political” has flipped. Now, for many Jews, the political is personal. As we grapple with the impact of the Israel-Hamas war, we’re not organizing, we’re agonizing. We’re trembling or festering privately, painfully aware of our powerlessness in the face of the depravity of Hamas and its pledge to commit more October 7 massacres, ad infinitum. Or we’re bewildered by Israel’s declaration of a long war with no exit strategy in sight.
The baby riddled in its onesie by Hamas bullets haunts me to this day. As do the young revelers shot dead at the music festival. And the families whose “safe” rooms became their crematoria. And the women who were publicly humiliated, raped, and mutilated, and the men tortured, butchered or beheaded. But I’m also tormented by the relentless, unspeakable suffering inflicted on Gazan civilians by Israeli bombs and bullets. I think it’s important to hold both realities in our hearts at the same time. Most Palestinians I know don’t hate Jews per se; they hate Israeli policy makers who foment racist laws, and they hate the only Israelis they know close up—soldiers who routinely violate their rights, restrict their travel and deny their very humanity. If a country had treated us that way for 75 years, how would we feel? How would we resist?
I was devastated by the events of October 7. Now I’m appalled by the massive human suffering caused by Israel’s cruel retaliation. I’m shocked when a Jew appears unmoved by the anguish of Gazans driven from their homes, families separated, neighborhoods reduced to rubble, mothers trying to keep their kids alive without food, water, sanitation, medicine or electricity. I’m dismayed and unsettled by the apparent absence of an Israeli plan for governance of Gaza “the day after.” I’m depressed that ending the Occupation seems to be nowhere on Israel’s agenda. (It should be a bargaining chip traded for release of the remaining hostages.)
I seem to be taking Israeli politics personally: the failure of her vaunted intelligence institutions (long touted as the world’s best). The blunders of the IDF. Netanyahu’s craven self-interest. His refusal to take responsibility for the disasters on his watch. The smug arrogance of his ultra-right coalition as it protects its own power.
My response to these developments has been not only personal but intensely emotional. Maybe yours has, too. Check yourself for symptoms: Do you feel shaken by Israel’s security failures and accidental “friendly fire”on hostages? Have you lost faith in the Jewish state’s moral compass, ethical red lines, technical expertise? Are you worried about its capacity to defend itself without committing war crimes? About the rapid erosion of Israeli democracy? America’s waning influence in the region? Your own and your loved ones’ physical safety? Are your Israeli relatives considering leaving the country?
Have arguments about Israel fractured your relationships with friends or family members? Do you find yourself donating to different causes than you did before October 7? If you’ve been dealing with the illness of a loved one, as I have, do you sometimes feel guilty about prioritizing your private sorrows above the world’s humanitarian crises? Have you occasionally overdosed on personal pleasures as if food, booze or sex could inoculate you against despair? Conversely, if you’ve snagged your dream job, or your kid just made varsity, or you’re in a stupendous romantic relationship, do you ever feel guilty about being happy at a time like this? Is it as hard for you to concentrate on your work as it has been for me to write about all of this with clarity and compassion?
These issues cut close to the bone, and the chilling rise in flagrant, often violent expressions and acts of antisemitism compounds the pain. I wish we could build alliances with those similarly aggrieved by hostile environments or plagued by racism or Islamophobia. But too many Jews, Muslims and African Americans can’t seem to stop competing for the gold medal in victimhood.
Instead of fixing our eyes on the prize of peace and justice, we keep adding bile to the acrid discourse, corroding progressive unity and tossing red meat to conservatives.
While the personal dissatisfactions of women became grist for constructive changes in American society, the Israel-Hamas war and its alarming international reverberations seem to have afflicted many of us with a spiritual inertia born of existential trauma. We’re not paranoid, we’re realists. We’ve been there before, and our instinct to underscore Jewish vulnerability and guard Jewish safety is justified. But we can’t let fear morph into solipsism or mire us in hopelessness.
Rather than descend into depression or tit-for-tat vengeance, we should heal our anguish by doubling down on hope. For me this means supporting and promoting projects dedicated to advancing a peaceful resolution of the conflict and a workable plan for Israeli-Palestinian coexistence. Wikipedia has a long list of such groups, or you could Google a few of my favorites: The Alliance for Middle East Peace. A Land for All. Combatants for Peace. Hand in Hand (a network of bilingual, multicultural Jewish-Arab schools). Americans for Peace Now.
Obviously, the best guarantee of security is a permanent peace. Since neither side is giving up the fight or voluntarily leaving the land they each love, the only rational course is to explore plausible alternatives to the cruelty and carnage. When politics fails, maybe the only action we can take is personal.
Letty Cottin Pogrebin is the author of 12 books, most recently Shanda: A Memoir of Shame and Secrecy.
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